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Creativity, Unproductivity, and my Desi Demons

I come from a family of artists. My father makes films, my mother dances, one of my grandmothers is an actress, the other a skilled knitter. Ever since I was young, I was encouraged to dream about a future where I could spend everyday writing or painting. Yet, when the time came for me to choose my path for uni, I firmly decided against it. A creative career felt out of reach for me when the sight of a blank page would induce so much anxiety in me that I would rip it to shreds before I could even make the first mark. The things I loved doing became my worst nightmare, causing me to snuff them out before they could burn me. But my desire to connect with my own creativity never died out.

Seven years have passed since then and an unprecedented set of circumstances have made me feel comfortable enough to take my creative urges more seriously. COVID19 had led me to lose my job. Alongside this loss, I was also experiencing the important milestone of having finished my Master’s degree. I promised myself that I would take two weeks to rest before diving into my job hunt, but unsurprisingly, I really struggled to do it. The pandemic brought me face–to–face with my own feelings around my productivity and showed me the fragility of my self–esteem in gory detail. I couldn’t help but feel that every minute I spent not searching for a job or working on a freelance project was horribly wasted. This was in sharp contrast to what I was actually doing, which was taking a much–needed break to explore my hobbies and see if I could take a few risks towards realising my dream of becoming a writer by day and artist by night. How could I, after all, truly build a career out of writing or making beautiful things? I never went to art school and didn’t hold a degree in journalism. I was wasting my time. 

It was surprising to hear the voice inside my head constantly chastising me for doing things I loved while ordering me to be productive and solely focusing on getting regular, paid income in the thing that I was already skilled at. Flash forward to my 25 year school reunion: I could see myself standing beside my terrifically talented friends, not having written a bestselling book and probably working in marketing at a small company that nobody had heard of – in my mind, I was unremarkable and I had failed. There was something very contradictory about these two images: pursuing the things I wanted at the very core of my being felt like a waste of time for as long as I wasn’t making any money, and not attaining these dreams at all made me a failure. Where on earth was this coming from? How could I feel so ashamed of myself when I was at my happiest? 

Undoubtedly, it’s tied to my growing years in India. I remembered being at a well–known New Delhi–based school that deeply valued creativity and cultural learning, at least on the surface. There were regular dance and music performances and an abundance of opportunities to take part in competitions. But somehow, this just made the arts even more inaccessible to everyone who wasn’t naturally talented or didn’t have the means to excel at these skills. I was fortunate to have been noticed for some of my strengths, but my love for drawing far outweighed my abilities. When I did get the opportunities to express this side of myself, it was often entangled with the spirit of competition, which privileges your performance in relation to others rather than the happiness that creativity can offer. This was embedded in a larger system fraught with fierce competition where the kids who were good at different fields were celebrated by their peers, and everyone else was sort of confined to blending into the background. Parallelly, at home, the possibility of turning my passions into my career path was slowly turning into pressure. I was becoming increasingly aware that if I didn’t upskill, I’d never make it into design school. If my work was bad and design school was an impossibility, was there any point in creating art at all? 

My school’s toxic relationship with creativity, productivity, mental health and privilege was embedded in a system where children had to prepare for steady careers with lucrative salaries, sometimes even before they began their primary education. Within this system, which firmly rested on India’s deeply–rooted caste and class–based hierarchies, the arts were secondary. Yet, the harsh pressures and the impossibly high standards that were imposed on academics extend to the arts at the behest of individual students. This often manifested in subtle ways, such as cherry picking students to participate in specific activities, or drawings being rejected for classroom displays. The school’s pursuit of manufacturing a perfect image of a talented and creative student body hinged on nurturing a handful of us. The same students would get solo performances during music events, or be selected to participate in art competitions at other schools. This often made it impossible for students who didn’t already have the means and parental support to pursue their hobbies to express themselves at school, while others who were anything short of spectacular likely felt discouraged from trying out new things at all. I would find myself in this situation every now and again and eventually began hating myself and believing that I could never be good enough – until now.  

As I wade through the murky waters of my school years, my messy relationship with my hobbies becomes crystal clear. Of course I feel like I’m being unproductive – my joy has no measurable material benefits or prestige. Yet, crying to myself as I type out a particularly painful scene in my latest attempt at writing a novel feels like the single most worthwhile thing to do. Exploring and feeling the pain of my past and accepting my temporary “unproductivity” is, without doubt, the kindest thing I can do for myself.

     

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

We hope you’ll join us.

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